MLS is no transcendent soccer

It occurred to me today while reading some back and forth on pro/rel, soccer in the US and and in Europe that opponents of pro/rel miss something.

A key knock against pro/rel, from critics, is super clubs that win or contend for their league titles over and over again. These critics like the American system, that handicaps teams through a myriad of salary, draft and roster rules to achieve more competitive parity and less super clubs.

One comment I read today, pointed out that comparing the number of teams/clubs that have won the championship in MLS to Premier League is not the right comparison. A better comparison is to the two leagues under the Premier League in the U.K.’s soccer pyramid.

Those leagues have far more champions and a large number of clubs that have been promoted into the league and relegated down to the next league.

But, why compare to those leagues? After all, MLS is the top league in the U.S.

First, the level of competition in those leagues are more on par with MLS, because the payrolls are more on par.

But, that comment made me think there’s a more important reason.

The top leagues around the world have created what the critics the would call super clubs. These critics don’t understand why its fun to watch the same clubs in contention year after year.

But, for fans, those leagues have created clubs and soccer that transcends geography.

What does that mean?

Lots of folks around the world, not just in their home cities, follow Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, PSG and Bayern Munich, among others. Even more have heard of them.

The attention garnered by teams in MLS and the 2nd and 3rd tiers in Europe is limited to the populations in the towns around them or people with affinities to those towns.

The big clubs transcend this geography because they have the world’s best players and best coaches. Their coaches are less constrained by budget to get the players that can execute their systems.

Soccer fans around the world want to watch the best players and best clubs for lots of reasons. They enjoy watching the top players and teams.

They want to see how the top play. They want to see what’s possible. They want to see results of all the hard work those players put in and the talent that goes with. They want to see how the coach has pieced together a masterpiece to execute their vision and how they handle adversity and adjust game plans, rather than watching a coaches make due because they that had to make tough trade-offs to make a budget.

While I think it’s tough to peel the apart the affinity folks have for a club vs the club’s players and performance is tough, Man United is a good example of what happens when you don’t have the performance. They have good players, but that’s not enough and and the club has lost a little bit of the transcendent footing over the past few years as they have struggled with performance.

I’d argue that its owners might think the game is just about getting the best players and misses the part where you have to get managers that can build the teams that can execute their winning vision. In Man United, I see a team of good players, where the coach, like coaches in the U.S., have to make due with what they have, rather than get the right pieces for their game plan.

And, while soccer fans love to follow their transcendent favorites, they also love to follow their local teams and cheer them on, too. Those are the 2nd and 3rd tier leagues in England and MLS, maybe, if they have a local team.

These soccer fans don’t get bored watching their transcendent teams continue to pile on results because they are watching the best do what they do.

Pro/rel would connect a lot of disconnected pieces in soccer

One thing that bugs me about soccer is how often I miss the local MLS game because I’m either busy playing soccer or had a game to coach.

It’s hard to imagine a solution. Why would adult and youth soccer teams organize their schedules around the pro team? They are all independent of each other and have no incentive to organize their schedules around each other.

What most folks miss in pro/rel is that the club becomes the organizer of the the local pro team, adult leagues and youth soccer. It connects all these up. And they have more incentive to organize their amateur youth and adult schedules around the pro team, so more people can watch the pro team, as that becomes the main event each week.

They become what is more authentically known as ‘club supporters,’ which is a marketing term in the U.S. to refer to season ticket holders.

But, it’s easy to see it has more meaning in countries where ‘supporters’ are folks that belong to a club where they play, maybe volunteer coach, and where their kids play or grew up playing.

How US Soccer impacts your pickup

A couple yokels on Twitter were poking fun at a pro/rel supporter who said US soccer is repressing soccer at all levels in the US.

“He thinks US soccer is repressing my weekly soccer pickup. Haha”

Jokes on them.

As the famous French economist pointed out in his Parable of the Broken Window, there are things that can and things that cannot be seen.

Rather than being persuasive, these yokels demonstrated that they lack knowledge for the things that cannot be seen.

What they can’t see here is how US Soccer’s policies have limited their pickup.

If US Soccer organized soccer by world standards set in the the guidelines of its charter organization, FIFA, chances are good that there would be land-based soccer clubs dotting cities and towns across the country where pickup soccer was just one of the many activities it hosted, making it easier to get games going more often with better facilities.

Some questions for critics of pro/rel

One thing I noticed about critics of pro/rel is how confident that it would never work in the U.S. These are questions I have for them:

How do you know? Has it been tried here before? When and where?

For that matter, are there places in the world where pro/rel has been tried and it ended in system failure? I often hear these critics say that someday there will be collapse in these pyramids, but that someday never seems to get closer.

Do you think that there’s anything to the phrase, “you never know until you try?” Have you ever said it yourself?

Then what makes you so sure about pro/rel in the U.S.?

Are you 100% in your predictions of what will work and what won’t? If so, why aren’t you the richest person in the world?

Why not try it? I really don’t understand the vehement distaste folks have for it in a sport.

“Nobody will invest in the MLS if there’s a risk of relegation”

This is a common objection to pro/rel in US soccer.

To use this objection reveals ignorance on a few fairly obvious points.

That most of the rest of soccer world that uses pro/rel and has no trouble finding investors for clubs.

That even Americans have invested in clubs in these pro/rel leagues. Some folks who have invested even commentate for American soccer, like Stu Holden, who invested in FC Mallorca then in Spain’s second division and won promotion to its first division. Stu was very, very excited that day.

Might SOME investors be reluctant to invest with a threat of relegation? Sure. But that’s not ALL investors.

Likewise, some investors may be reluctant to invest in a closed league for lots of reasons One reason could be that you like to win, you think winning depends on having the best players possible, and yet central office restrains your roster choices to keep the league competitive (i.e. prevent a talent bidding war among owners), because it thinks that works.

Often, when these points are made, the critic moves the goalposts on the discussion to other points like “but, clubs fail when they are demoted.”

Which reveals more ignorance. Have clubs failed when demoted? Sure. Does it happen every time? Far from it.

Does it matter? It shouldn’t. Failure is common and accepted in all walks of life. Why should sports be immune to it? It matters even less if the incentives are in place to encourage more competition to quickly replace those failures.

In places with pro/rel, there is plenty of competition to fill the voids of the occasional failure, just like in other markets. When one restaurant fails, plenty others are there to fill the void.

I also understand that failure isn’t fun for the folks involved. But, I think a landscape that allows for the occasional failure when a team isn’t working, and that has a vibrant landscape of competitors, is better than a landscape with a few players that is prone to total system failure.

But MLS is far from total system failure!

That’s the topic for the next post.

Promotion/Relegation: “It should just be about the soccer. I don’t know why it’s about the business.”

Host Segev Robinoviz gives one of the best and simplest descriptions of promotion/relegation I’ve heard in this Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast from about the 19 minute mark to 27 minutes.

During this segment, he discusses his thoughts on the how the Canadian Soccer Federation licenses. He says that clubs cannot play at the highest level in Ontario unless it has a National Club License.

To get to it, I have to give some of what he was discussing. Here’s my slighted edited transcription with emphasis added:

“So, you are not allowed to play with the best teams at the best league. It doesn’t matter how good your team is. …that’s why I’m not optimistic about the continuous development of Ontario soccer [which is the stated goal of the licensing].

To talk about the the National Youth Club licensing, one of the characteristics is that you need to have a facility strategy, access to advanced facilities, access to physical space as a headquarters for operations. There’s so much stuff that clubs and academies like mine that are so small just have no chance of achieving.

Meaning our players, no matter how good they are, unless they try out for these teams, cannot play at the highest level.

What upsets me the most about this, there’s a couple of things. The first thing is that Ontario Soccer talks a lot about inclusivity and how everyone should play and yet there’s a gap now that they are creating between clubs and academies to get players to play at a high level. Now they can’t do it, no matter how much a player wants to. Even if they’re good enough they may not be able to afford playing at the highest level because it’s going to cost you more if you have to rent a facility, have physios on your staff. There’s so much financial structure that’s passed down to the players because it is a pay-to-play model.

The best players that historically come from not necessarily the richest part of town, this is what we can see throughout history and all of the world, the best players didn’t start out at a fancy academy. Maybe they got to the academy by the time they were 15/16, but very rarely do they come in at U13.

The solution to this is super easy. Promotion/relegation and that’s it. It should just be about the soccer. I don’t know why it’s about the business. The business doesn’t matter.

The way that most clubs operate here is that teams are pretty much separate from each other. There aren’t a lot of clubs here where the U10’s know the U11’s.

So, to get away from the soccer part and really just talk about how you as a business must operate this way to have your players play at this level, it doesn’t make sense.

How is it at U9, U10, U11, U12 we’re not putting the emphasis on how good is your team? If your team is really good, let’s get them all together and play. If you’re at U15 and you have a fantastic team, because we’ve had teams here in Ontario who have won the Ontario Cup that were not OPDL [highest leagues] and that’s the proof. The best team for the age group didn’t play at the highest level [assuming the league and Ontario Cup are two separate competitions].

It just doesn’t make sense. If we had a promotion/relegation system, which we do at the district level and it works great, this is just a huge problem and this is what is going to continue to not allow our players to develop.”

-Segev

Yes. That’s how it is in the U.S., also. Certain elements of the business has been dictated by the Federation, rather than just letting the soccer on the field play out.

It’s a tough concept for bureaucrats to get their arms around. They have lots of reasons to justify their meddling, like ‘stability’ or ‘to make sure the athletes get the best experience’ and have no concept that their meddling works against the thing they want to achieve, because it limits, rather than encourages, competition.

Or, put another way, competition is what drives improvement and development, not advanced facilities or physios on staff.

It’s worth a listen, as is the segment on tactics on playing out of back. It takes more than just technical skill.

Soccer needs more swish

Have you ever noticed that basketball players can score in lots of different ways and often, while soccer players usually have 1-2 shots and often miss what looks like should be easy goals?

Some observations:

Basketball hoops are everywhere. From Fisher Price and Nerf hoops to get kids started early learning to launch balls on the parabolic trajectory needed to send it through the net, to driveway hoops that can lowered for young kids, to every school, many churches and parks — finding a hoop to shoot on is easy.

Contrast that with soccer, where goals aren’t that readily available and where they are they are often locked up because the folks who take care of the grounds don’t want to destroy the grass in front of the goal.

When shooting hoops, it’s easy to get lots of reps. When practicing scoring in soccer you spend 75% of the time chasing the ball.

Having lots of hoops wouldn’t matter at all if nobody used them. But, we do tend to use them. From a young age, we learn lots of fun basketball games to keep anywhere from 1-10 players engaged and improving without knowing it. Games like OUT, Around the World, 1-on-1, 2-on-2, and up, 21 and so on. Every one of them has endless variation and chances are if you played them, you created your own variations that nobody knows about.

The neat trick of these games is that they get people practicing without feeling like they are practicing and gets them to do thousands upon thousands of reps, while having fun.

And, there’s something about that ‘swish’ sound the basketball makes when falling through the net that’s addictive feedback that encourages lots and lots of reps.

Hitting the back of the net in soccer is similar, but the overhead it takes to get there (finding a goal to practice on, chasing the ball, etc.) is much higher than with a basketball.

Putting all this together, it seems scoring practice in soccer happens several order of magnitudes less than in basketball, and it shows, even at the elite levels, who often send easy looking shots high and wide and then put their arms up in despair, hopefully thinking to themselves, “I should have practiced that shot at least 100,000 more times!” Because that’s what I think when I miss easy goals.

I feel like there’s a simple solution out there to graft some of these learnings about basketball practice onto soccer, but I just don’t know what it is.

I think it may entail some combination of futsal courts and walls made specifically for shooting games and practice and adapting some of those fun basketball games that gets kids shooting hoops for hours at a time, so kids will know how to use those courts and walls.

I like the fustal courts because they can encourage lots of shooting practice and can easily accommodate basketball-like games from 1 to 10 players or more with pickup rules. The court surface means its playable more of the time and no worries about destroying the grass in front of the goal.

I like the wall idea, because it can increase the shooting practice to ball chase ratio to proportions similar to basketball and increase reps by orders of magnitude.

Maybe someone can get creative and paint a goal face on the wall and point targets. Maybe 100 points for the corners and 50 points all along the edge, that could be used to play a form of 500 and around the world.

I like the basketball game ideas, because these have been proven in basketball to be effective at changing the practice experience to be fun. Instead of 5 minutes of drills feeling like 5 hours to a kid, the games can make 2 hours feel like 10 minutes.

What I can’t figure out is how to combine these. When I coached, I tried to adapt several fun games (forms of 21, around the world, 500) to soccer hoping the kids would take those home and do them. But, they didn’t, so apparently they weren’t fun or easy enough.

I also made small rebounders out of about $10 worth of lumber. I like those, but wish they could be lighter and easier to transport and easier to setup on multiple surfaces, like grass, turf and pavement.

I also quite figure out how to replicate the ‘swoosh’, that sound of addictive sound of perfection.

I feel that the answer is in there somewhere. Sometimes, it just takes an almost accidental combination of such ingredients to ignite an explosion of culture change. I mean, games like OUT and 21 in basketball started somewhere.

Also, while I think tennis is well ahead of soccer in getting parks and rec departments to put in tennis courts and rebounding walls across the country, I think it still lacks the knowledge of simple and fun games on those walls to encourage competition.

I think the result is that these games and facilities could be much more consistent and varied scoring as well as spreading skill competencies beyond the kids that happen to be a) ‘bitten by the soccer bug’ early and b) have the self-discipline to put in the work specifically in those sports to get better.

Fun games of catch, 500, 1-on-1, 21, OUT, HORSE and more, build a good skill base in a bigger chunk of the population that has had two big impacts on the elite levels.

First, it broadens the elite player pool by orders of magnitude because it won’t be limited to the small percentage of kids that have the two ingredients mentioned above. A kid might get to age 13 and be bitten by the soccer bug, but still have good enough skills where they are starting at 75% of elite, instead of 0%, so it’s easier for them to close the gap. That 13 year-old who decides to give soccer a try with 0% skills, often quits after the first practice because their skill level is so far below average they think they are awful.

Second, it means that ‘elite’ players have to compete against better competition, which makes them even better — and maybe even means a whole different set of people become elite. Instead of winning tournament trophies against teams where the kids have 0-30% of the skill base of the elite, they are competing against kids that have 75% or more of the skill base, which will push the higher level even higher, while also improving scoring.

These are the two dynamics that I think support Tom Byer’s saying, “You have to push up the bottom to push up the top.”

Swoosh

Is MLS rigged for ratings?

While watching the Sporting KC at Chicago game this weekend, the announcers said that MLS has asked refs to crack down on time wasting because ‘nobody wants to watch that,’ after a Chicago player earned a yellow card for kicking the ball away to slow down a Sporting KC throw-in.

Not much later, a ‘soft’ penalty, as the same announcers described it, was called against KC resulting in a PK and goal that put Chicago up 2-1. This was shortly after a harder penalty was not called against Chicago.

I can tell you what fans don’t want to watch even less than time wasting is penalty calls like those.

I’ve seen it enough of those in recent years go against Sporting KC to raise my eyebrows.

In some cases, these bad calls or no calls have come at pivotal moments of playoff games where it’s easy to imagine a story line where the MLS believes it would be more beneficial for he other team to advance, like that team has a higher home TV market rating.

But, in an early season game with little consequence, it doesn’t seem like there would be as much motive to be so blatant. But, then again, Chicago’s ownership changed hands recently after nearly going out of business and the new owner is trying to rebuild (or maybe just build). Maybe MLS thinks getting off to a good start this season, especially with a home game, will create some buzz and attract more interest and viewers in Chicago to help the building process. From the looks of the stands, they need all the help they can get.

But, soft calls like those, be they random or motivated by bigger goals, detract. I already have suspicions that results are massaged for what the MLS leaders think will result in more ratings. Moments like that don’t help dissuade those suspicions.

Zero Sum vs Positive Sum Soccer

Those who believe pro/rel cannot work in the U.S. have a zero sum view of soccer.

They believe that soccer has to be grown to a certain point before pro/rel can take place and that point is undefined and never quite within reach.

They don’t understand that pro/rel creates positive sum soccer that causes growth in the game. By blocking pro/rel, they are restricting soccer’s growth to the point that they will never feel like pro/rel would work.

It’s a bit like saying that I’m not going to let my toddler eat as much as an adult until he’s as big as adult, otherwise he’s just not ready. What would that do? Starve him of the very energy and nourishment he needs to become as big as an adult.

Near the beginning of organized soccer in England, which later spread around the world via FIFA, a way to organize soccer accidentally emerged that created positive sum soccer, which promotion/relegation is a big part, but not the only part.

I don’t believe there was a lot of intention for that. At the beginning, there weren’t vested interests and there was much less resistance to doing what seemed to make common sense and was fair.

As lots of clubs popped up and formed into leagues, pro/rel emerged as a common sense and fair way to smerge the leagues together so that the clubs could find their way to an appropriate level of competition.

It’s common sense because it sees the competition as between clubs or teams, where it should be.

It’s fair, because it lets teams earn their spot in the league structure by how well they play.

Pro/rel is common to youth and amateur soccer leagues across the U.S., including at the indoor facility where I play twice weekly.

The folks stuck in the zero sum box of soccer is they don’t understand that their mindset is the very thing holding the growth of the game back by keeping out the very thing that has proven around the world to grow it.

Fair question: How does it do that?

It opens up positive feedback loops that incentivizes more soccer from the top to the bottom, even at the grassroots.

Let’s start at the top. Pro/rel shifts the business unit from a league to a club, which lowers the barrier of entry by a factor of 10. Many more clubs will pop up if they don’t also have to immediately have another 10 – 12 clubs that they have to organize with to form a league.

With many more clubs popping up, US Soccer would do the job that its counterparts in other countries do, put together leagues that make sense for the clubs that want to enter, keep score and standings in a way so players, coaches, teams and clubs actually know how good they are.

Fight now, it’s really, really difficult to tell the difference between good and bad teams because there are so many disconnected leagues, tournaments and competitions.

A team from the Midwest can be division and tournament champs in their hometown and think they are tops, but would be routed by a mid-level team from Southern California.

That’s no good because it takes players and coaches in this disjointed model much too long to figure out what good is because the feedback is mostly noise.

It would be much better for the sport if that Midwest team knew that, loudly and clearly.

Having a better feel for where you rank as a player, coach and team, across the country, not just your insulated bubble, would help align everyone involved to pushing toward the right standard.

There’s more feedbacks that are important, but I will leave this post with the one that I think is most important at the grassroots.

The full positive sum soccer package includes pro/rel, transfer payments, training compensation and solidarity payments. The last three change grassroots soccer.

Grassroots soccer currently feeds off parent wallets. This results quantity over quality and little helpful feedback for the player. They will tell you how great your kid is because you write a check, don’t want to lose your check to the competing and clubs and they want to fill all their rosters to maximize their revenue.

They recruit the best players in the club to their academy teams, and use those as marketing tools to help fill the rest of their rosters. They know that by the time the parents discover that it’s 10x more about the internal motivation and interests of the kid than anything the club can do, they will have drained several years of fees from them.

Transfer payments, training comp and solidarity payments changes it to quality over quantity. These payments reward clubs for discovering and training talent. So, instead of relying solely on parents, clubs can make money by finding good players, training them, getting them under contract on a first team and trading them.

This results in more club owners sponsoring free house leagues, so the area kids have a place to play and the club has a place to see if they have any diamonds in the rough. When they find one, that kid doesn’t have to pay $2,000 a year to play, so there are more opportunities for kids of all incomes to play more soccer.

For some kids, hopping from the house league to the club’s competitive team will seem like a pretty cool goal. Those kids will become more interested in learning what it takes to hop from the house league to the competitive team that competes in US Soccer’s league and it will be in the club’s best interests to let the kids clearly know.

These are just some of the feedbacks that the FIFA positive sum soccer package creates to grow the game, but these are the biggies.

If an MLS team is worth $800 million, I have a bridge to sell you

Try $25 – $50 million. Maybe $100 million for a top one.

More people watch the Little League World Series on TV than the MLS Cup.